FILM / Here's the beef, where's the meat?

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The Independent Culture
WHAT is the point of Tom Cruise? Leading men should really get on and lead, but he always seems to operate within limits, or under orders. He was lauded for taking on a 'difficult' role in Born on the Fourth of July, but he made the difficulty look a cinch. His mavericks are regular guys, his tough types chirpy: he is the rebel with a perfectly understandable cause, and he wouldn't let us hate him for a moment. Is he really called Tom Cruise? Even his agent couldn't dream up a name like that: the lad next door with the flush of faraway places, a high-school jock with satin skills at the wheel.

His new movie, Far and Away, puts immense faith in him - he's hardly off- screen for a moment - but also hedges its bets, by stripping him to the waist and parading him as a fist-fighter. The message is clear: the character may not be up to much, but hey, feel the beef. The trouble is that Cruise, like Rod Taylor and Gregory Peck before him, runs on the gorgeous-but-dull ticket; the best he can do is buckle down into a cockpit, give a thumbs-up sign and a squirrel grin, then blast off into Top Gun. Or, as here, vault on to a bucking nag and head out West. His riding, to be fair, is a real surprise: rough and ragged, foaming at the bit, thrilled at the thought of a spill. It wakes this sleepy film up to a life of danger.

Far and Away tells a hoary little story in a huge way, and fails to notice the mismatch. It starts in the west of Ireland in 1892: Cruise plays Joseph, a peasant lad with strapping teeth. His father is killed by horrid landowners, briefly returns to life and urges his son to continue the fight: a light resurrection, nicely done, although it sets an ominous precedent for the film's approach to suffering. The director is Ron Howard, who was once in Happy Days and has plainly never left: all wounds heal quickly in his hands, and even death is but a short interlude filled with a wailing flute.

Joseph rides off to exact his revenge, and finds the target to be a whiskered old sweetie called Christie (Robert Prosky), with a scarlet coat and a difficult daughter. Look out, a conflict of interests] Shannon (Nicole Kidman) is first seen tossing her tangerine hair and getting ticked off for galloping, thus ramming home the point that she's a wild one. There's more to come about the great untamed, but the film plays it so safe that passion seems more of a gesture than a driving force. The first hour is Barbara Cartland for beginners, although she'd flinch at Howard's howlers. Would the posh house really take in a wounded oik and lay him on linen sheets? Would the oily cad then challenge him to pistols at dawn? We are meant to adore the hero for breaking the rules, which isn't easy when the film hasn't a clue what they are.

There's only one way out, the Martin Chuzzlewit solution: hey-ho for the States. 'I love America,' swoons Joseph. ' 'Would you like a job?' 'Would you like a room?' ' Ah, so that's it. For all the Oirish accents, this was never about the Celtic heritage; it was an American plug all along, just dying to get away from little green men and into the open spaces. The land of the free is a free-for-all: chunks of Oklahoma up for grabs, a vision of unreal estate on which all the characters converge.

First of all, they must pass through the furnace: Joseph and Shannon lose their worldly goods and end up in a Boston brothel, where Howard, who doesn't so much direct movies as tell them to go and wash their hands, really comes into his own. Only he could fill the screen with whores and then forbid his hero and heroine to make love. Far and Away is a one-kiss nonsense, with a schoolboy's fascinated terror of sex. Nicole Kidman - too perky for this trash - is actually Tom Cruise's wife, and the film is in awe of their privacy. Do real couples make good cinema? The closer that Hepburn came to Tracy, say, the more comfortable they looked on screen - funny and relaxed, but also less exciting, as if there was nothing new to learn about each other.

Far and Away ends with a whoop, as Joseph races the other pioneers in the great rush for territory. Someone just flogged him a dead horse, so he has to break a fresh one from scratch. 'Hang on to his bit,' shouts Shannon, though you can't tell whether she's addressing man or beast. A cowering camera looks up from beneath hoofs and wagon wheels, trying to convey the speed but only damming its flow. The claiming of a continent is made to look like the car- chase from an old Burt Reynolds film. I sat and waited for the blood-rushing buzz of authentic epic. It never came.

Night on Earth is the new film from Jim Jarmusch, who made Mystery Train and Down by Law. Like them, it feels fractured and oblique, turning stories into sidelines; whatever's going on, you suspect that something else, possibly more gripping, is happening just round the corner. Here there are five tales, unfurling in separate time-zones, on the theme of two in a taxi. At dusk in Los Angeles, the cabbie is Winona Ryder, who rehearsed her gum-chewing too hard; in New York, it's the wonderful Armin Mueller-Stahl in a furry cap; in Paris, Isaach de Bankole; in Rome, Roberto Benigni; in Helsinki, where dawn comes up like a hangover, Matti Pellonpaa and his weeping moustache.

The passengers range from Gena Rowlands to Beatrice Dalle, which is a long way. Rowlands, more suave than the others, actually suits the movie best - its watchful, curving takes, the competing glows of neon and headlamp. Jarmusch thinks with his camera, letting the images seep in and flood the movie with a jokey, melancholy tide. The Rome episode has more open gags, but they force the pace; I preferred Los Angeles - the toasted light of a day's end, and a plot that breaks its promise of great riches. Night on Earth is slight and sometimes irritating, but it hangs around in your mind's eye. The people here link up in the dark for a small fee, then disconnect for ever. Sounds like a trip to the movies.

'Far and Away' (12): Empire (497 9999), Camden Parkway (267 7034), Whiteleys (792 3324), MGM Baker St (935 9772) & Fulham Rd (373 6990); 'Night on Earth' (15): Lumiere (836 0691), Camden Plaza (485 2443), Gate (727 4043). All numbers are 071.